Beside the shower block stood an old-fashioned shaped caravan. Old it might be but it had been carefully painted and it positively gleamed in the mid afternoon sun. It was shaded by the massive cherry tree whose branches overhung the caravan in an almost maternal protective embrace. To one side of the caravan and along half of its front was a carefully constructed home made awning. Just beyond the awning was a barbeque made from a thick tin tray an old oven shelf and a few concrete blocks. Beside the barbeque stood a metal lidded dustbin filled with charcoal. Under the front of the awning stood an old deal table and four bentwood chairs all had been painted in bright canary yellow and sky blue colours. Also painted in similar fashion was the metal-framed hammock positioned under the side section of the awning.
Ross could be seen coming passed one of the three swimming pools. He was dressed in tattered shorts not fashionably tattered but tattered by use and patched with skill. He wore with them a glaringly white well worn tee shirt and dusty brown shoes. His sockless legs looked long and his whole physique lean. His age could be anywhere between thirty and fifty. He carried two plastic shopping bags one of which chinked invitingly, the other bulged with produce.
Under his arm was tucked the ubiquitous baguette. He dropped the bags on the table and entered the unlocked caravan. The caravan had a stable door and as he re-appeared he fastened back the top half of the door and closed the bottom. As he pulled the mosquito netting over the top half his grey cat appeared on the top half and nosed his way passed the netting. Felix shared with all his kind the infallible ability to always be on the wrong side of any door.
Ross laid a collection of cutlery on the table together with plates and glasses. The wine bottles for unsurprisingly it had been wine bottles that were chinking in the bag were stood carefully in the shade save for one which he opened and poured himself a glass before turning to Felix and saying “santé”. Needless to say Felix was not impressed he was far more interested in the contents of the other bag.
Ross tipped out the contents of the other bag and put a largish portion of liver pate on a plate mashed it and gave it to Felix who by now was doing his impression of a well oiled machine. Ross started to give his attention to the other contents, Cheese, pâte, cherry tomatoes, lettuce, rocket, chives, basil, red onions, garlic and mushrooms. With well-practised skill he swiftly made a garlic paste and constructed a superb Olive oil drizzled salad to be served with the pâte, cheese and bread. Meanwhile Felix having finished his meal had settled down in the deepest shade under the caravan for once with no door blocking his route to his destination.
Ross had come to France four years ago and almost by accident fetched up on this campsite. He had recently been made redundant and having no ties he had decided to wander around Europe.
Jobs were few and far between and the idea of frantically searching for someone willing to take advantage of him, his plight and the economic situation had had no appeal whatsoever. After little consideration he had sold his small flat on a falling market and got enough to pay off his debts and have a small sum left for himself. So armed his small funds had determined that the only way was to go from campsite to campsite. In his old but reliable Volkswagen Kombi he had made excursions to campsites in France, Spain and Italy and then back to France again where he had eventually arrived at the one he now called home.
He had run out of funds long ago but thanks to his odd job skills he had always found ways to provide the funds to feed himself and to continue his travels.
His travels around European campsites had made him something of an expert. He knew to avoid sandy sites and pinewood sites because they were difficult to keep free of dirt and sand. He had learnt that sites with horse flies and other bugs were best avoided. Cicadas he could tolerate in spite of the fact they sounded like a multitude of unanswered telephones.
This site twixt Tours and Saumur was ideal and it could have been fate that decided its choosing. Ross had decided to have an evening on red wine the same evening as the owner, an Englishman married to a delightful French Lady, had decided he deserved a night off. They had met, they had talked. Ross had told Paul of his travels, Paul had listened and was particularly interested in Ross’s escapades after he had run out of funds.
The following day Ross had been offered the egg shaped caravan and something more substantial off-season. He had accepted. OK he would be mowing grass, unblocking drains and attending to general maintenance but what the hell it was where he wanted to be the rest was a means of staying there. He by now had a reasonable grasp of French and most of the holidaymakers were English, his native tongue.
Ross finished off his meal with a third glass of red wine and a ripe, aromatic peach. Coffee would come later. He arose stretched, his arms flung wide and swung with practiced ease into the hammock. After a few moments he was joined by Felix whereupon they both fell into that delightful soporific half awake, half asleep state.
Ross was an enigma to his acquaintances, he could count on the fingers of one hand those he would call friend. The men he knew thought him to be a ladies man and the ladies thought he might be gay. In fact the truth was he much preferred his own company. To Ross being alone was not to be lonely. Those he invited to join him for a meal were invited for one of only two reasons in gratitude for a kindness or so Ross could indulge his love of cooking, always a waste, in his opinion, if there was only one to cook for.
The partitioning inside the caravan had been ripped out to make one large combined bedroom and studio. No need for bathroom facilities with the shower block so near and washing and washing up could be dealt with in the basins and washing machines on the far side of the block. The caravan was devoted to his two passions reading and music. They took up so much room there was only just room for his three-quarter-size bed and few clothes. Life was simple, life was good with little to cause him stress.
Most people were there for a week or fortnight and he could manage to be polite to even the most obnoxious for such a short time. The locals he greeted and treated with the camaraderie that exists in small communities everywhere.
Ross arose from his belated siesta and managed not to disturb Felix as he stood and stretched again. Felix slid with the minimum of effort into the warm spot that Ross had left and luxuriated in the newfound space. It was time for him to make his rounds checking that his high standards had been maintained. His two assistants were good workers but in their youthful exuberance the attention to detail was sometimes missing. But today he found nothing to concern himself with. Tomorrow the lawn by reception and outside the restaurant would need cutting. He checked the customer reports book and found only one fault not attended to but as he was checking for the number of the caravan with the broken television Phil drove up to the office. “Beat you to it and that’s my lot for today. Can you mark it off for me,” he remarked with a grin as he threw the keys of the service truck onto the table. “Mick’s on this evening,” and with that he was gone. Ross sighed when you have a good stress-free life why oh why did people sacrifice quality for quantity.
He shuddered as he remembered cold, wet and miserable Middlesborough days the stench of industry permanently in the air. The very memory seemed just part of a half-remembered nightmare. If there is a God he surely has rescued me he thought as he made his way back to his pleasing but basic home.
The season was coming to an end and he contemplated his options. That first winter he had gone to Perigore to find work but this time he had some money and he would be looking for a change, a break. He remembered Perigore it was where he had come closest to desperation. He had run completely out of funds and with an empty petrol tank and no jobs in the offing he was well and truly stuck. He had gone for a solitary walk in the woods and there a one ear up one ear down black and white mongrel had befriended him. They had walked Ross had thrown a stick the mongrel knew the game and had brought it back eager for it to be thrown again. So they had progressed. But the dog knew a different game and had dug earnestly at the base of an oak tree among the roots. Ross had been drawn by the dog’s excitement and enthusiasm and that was how Ross’s financial problem was solved. One truffle who would have thought that this nondescript black lump could provide him with four months worth of funds. The dog and Ross had parted on the best of terms. Ross had again had proof, if any were needed, that his preference for the company of animals was not misplaced.
The problem of his end of season holiday continued to occupy his mind as he set out for his favourite bistro. Set in the sort of little alleyway that a stranger would walk passed without noticing Les deux cygnes catered for the locals and the workers. It did a steady trade because it gave the workers a break from the holidaymakers. He turned into the alleyway and headed for the art noveau sign with the intertwined swans’ necks. Ross was greeted by the regulars and having ordered a croque monsieur and a pastis he joined a group who were seated at a large scrubbed deal table. From the table in the far corner he gazed round the room. The ceiling was yellowed with years of smoke stain. The bar was of beaten, dimpled copper with high black bentwood stools. The lamps hanging in two rows the length of the room were gas lamps converted to electricity the only concession to safety. The low wattage bulbs giving no more light than a warm glow. On the wood panelled walls were stuck posters advising of forthcoming football and rugby matches involving local teams. And on the wall behind the bar between the bottles were pictures of French Tour de France riders of the past. Bernard Hinault, Jacque Anquetil, Andre Darrigarde and Loiusan Bobet and many others all heroes of bygone days.
They were joined at the table by the patron, Henri, who brought a jug of red wine with him. The talk was of the season seemingly a good one, Small town politics. The scandal involving the mayor’s son and the librarians daughter was far more interesting than the Americans and “roast biffs” making fools of themselves. Ross brought the conversation round to his problem. Suggestions came at him from all directions. Handymen were needed for the skiing season in Cortina and Grenoble. Crew for yachts in the West Indies and many more ideas were lost in the general outburst of advice. “Or”, said Henri in a lull in the conversation, “if your heart is here why go anywhere? Felix would certainly miss you.” Marcel who ran cookery classes for the tourists chipped in “or I could demonstrate to you more cooking skills to add to your repertoire. No charge just for the pleasure of your company and your help to improve my English.”
Problem solved and another lesson learned “if you are where you want to be why go somewhere else.”
As he made his way back to his caravan his thoughts turned to Felix. Felix had belonged to, Anton, the chef at the camp restaurant. A brilliant chef in Ross’s opinion but violent when the brandy had him in it’s grasp. Finally after many minor skirmishes he had chased a particularly obnoxious German holidaymaker from the restaurant. An incident which could possibly have been forgiven had he not been brandishing a cleaver at the time. It had been the talk of the camp staff for weeks. Felix had been nowhere to be seen when Anton had left and when he emerged hungry and bedraggled several days later no one knew where Anton had gone. It wasn’t so much he mused that he had adopted Felix far more the other way round.
It had taken Felix less than a week to progress from odd scraps and sleeping under the caravan to a proper menu and loosely set meat times and a spot on the bottom of Ross’s bed. It had developed into the easygoing companionable arrangement they now enjoyed.
A competent cook with no temper and little personality had replaced Anton. Edith was a plain girl and a good catholic. She was good hearted and suited the camp’s restaurant kitchen well. As most holidaymakers were there for a fortnight at most her somewhat plainer and limited repertoire did not matter, in fact it hardly noticed. More importantly she did not fly into a rage if asked for egg and chips or take it as a personal insult if little Johnny wanted fish fingers and chips for every meal. Anton had refused to have fish fingers anywhere near the restaurant declaring them to be an abomination unfit even for his cat. Felix appeared from behind a small shrubbery as if he knew he was being thought about and joined Ross for the final few yards back to the caravan. Little did Felix know he had been just one factor in Ross’s end of season arrangements.
The season was drawing to a close The late season visitors were a marked contrast to those high spirited souls of the high season.., They were far more sedate and laid back either older in years or younger with pre-school children. Gradually the end of term atmosphere spread through staff and visitors alike. Holiday reps took down tents and sorted them into those that would be disposed of and those that would do another season. Caravans were cleaned locked and secured ready to be opened a few weeks prior to the new season. All was busy in a controlled way. There was none of the buzz and bustle that in a few months would herald the start of a new season.
Ross had a secret. In between attending to his own end of season chores he would disappear through a diagonal path he had cut in the wide hedge behind his caravan. By cutting the path at an angle it was almost impossible to see that there was a path through the hedge at all.
Ross had negotiated with the farmer whose field it was to use the headland as his garden plot and the last few weeks of the early autumn he spent digging and manuring. He intended to grow his own salad crops and herbs. Before he left the site for the winter he was going to edge the whole plot with garlic cloves. Grown that way, he had been told, would, as well as providing a good crop, deter pests from invading the rest of his crops.
Ross had arranged to rent a single bedroomed stone long house as his winter quarters. Already he had accumulated an enviable log pile for the winters, though short, could be bitingly cold.
Finally the last visitors left and as if by magic the weather immediately turned several degrees colder. One final frantic week of tidying the campsite and everyone was away some off to foreign climes for their own holidays, others back to their homes in other countries or other parts of France. Some, he knew, would come back for the new season others would seek pastures new. But Ross felt he was home, he was where he wanted to be. He had no yearning to be anywhere else.
At last he loaded the Kombi collected Felix ready to drive to his winter home a mere two kilometres away. Already he was looking forward to warm nights by the fire, convivial evenings at Les deux cygnes and cookery lessons with Marcel. There were no plans to be made for Christmas he would be expected to join in with the village folk and that he would be delighted to do. Marcel would, no doubt, cook Christmas dinner with himself attending to the prepping.
Life was good, life was simple the trick was to keep it that way. He started the Kombi’s engine. Felix settled on his lap making driving that little bit harder but they were off and it wasn’t far. He bade farewell to another season.